Next book on my adult fiction bookshelf for the Daily Book Excerpt:
Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the second story ‘Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut’.
My favorite in the collection. I think it would make a terrific short film, too. Don’t change a word. But there’s something revealed in ‘Uncle Wiggily’ – some truth about life exposed- that makes it feel almost radioactive to me. I can’t look directly at it for too long or my retinas will burn off or something. I guess I take ‘Uncle Wiggily’ personally, somehow … it has gotten under my skin.
It’s a fast-paced story made up almost entirely of dialogue, and things happen so quickly, and there are so many italics, that the ending is like a sucker-punch. I almost resented it the first time I read it because I wasn’t prepared for it. But then again, going back to read it again you can see that Salinger was leading us to that tragic ending all along (to me it’s tragic, anyway – like “Eleanor Rigby” tragic) – the ice-bound suburbs, the icy Merritt Parkway – everything encased in ice. That’s the first image of the story. Eloise has “iced” herself to such a degree in order to bear the life she has chosen. She can’t allow any warmth, not even towards her daughter Ramona (who is such a trip – I adore her. Salinger writes children so well!) because if she opens herself up to love, all she will be able to think about will be the love she once lost. (Who is, by the way, Walt Glass – another sibling in the famous Glass family. I don’t even think Salinger mentions his last name – but to Glass fanatics, the second you see “Walt” you know who it is).
Mary Jane and Eloise were friends from college. Neither of them graduated, but they have kept in touch. Eloise lives in Connecticut, with her husband Lew and her daughter Ramona. Mary Jane (if I am remembering correctly) is unmarried (although she was married once for three months) and lives in New York City. She is awkward and kind of overly friendly to Ramona when she meets her. She doesn’t know how to talk to kids. Ramona stalks around with her imaginary friend whose name is “Jimmy Jimmereeno” and he carries a sword. Eloise is exasperated by Ramona, there’s something about mothering that seems to harass her … we’re getting close to the abyss here, the abyss at the heart of Eloise’s life. We can see it in her treatment of her daughter, which is not abusive – just kind of tired and “over it”. Eloise looks around at her own life, full of solid things – like a house, a husband, a black maid, a daughter – and doesn’t recognize herself in it. She doesn’t say so, Salinger is never that obvious – it’s just the feeling we get. Eloise and Mary Jane immediately begin to drink martinis and smoke cigarettes, talking about the old days, and laughing hysterically. Eloise keeps them drinking … until finally Mary Jane passes out face down on the couch. They are wasted. Salinger manages to suggest this without ever coming out and saying it: most of the story, like I mentioned, is dialogue – so they’ll be chatting along, and then – through the dialogue you can tell a drink is spilled – or that one of them has stumbled … It’s a very effective way to show drunkenness, I think. And somehow Salinger also manages to suggest the sadness hovering underneath all of this – that cannot somehow be spoken (although with enough martinis it eventually is).
Brilliant story – one of my favorites of Salinger’s, certainly – but also one of my favorite short stories ever written. Even if it does burn my retina if I look at it too long.
The last line of the story is so killer it makes me want to weep. How often have I said the same thing to myself. Brilliant story.
Here’s an excerpt.
EXCERPT FROM Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the second story ‘Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut’.
“I mean you didn’t really know Walt,” said Eloise, at a quarter of five, lying on her back on the floor, a drink balanced upright on her small-breasted chest. “He was the only boy I ever knew that could make me laugh. I mean really laugh.” She looked over at Mary Jane. “You remember that night – our last year – when that crazy Louise Hermanson busted in the room wearing that black brassiere she bought in Chicago?”
Mary Jane giggled. She was lying on her stomach on the couch, her chin on the armrest, facing Eloise. Her drink was on the floor, within reach.
“Well, he could make me laugh that way,” Eloise said. “He could do it when he talked to me. He could do it over the phone. He could even do it in a letter. And the best thing about it was that he didn’t even try to be funny – he just was funny.” She turned her head slightly toward Mary Jane. “Hey, how ’bout throwing me a cigarette?”
“I can’t reach ’em,” Mary Jane said.
“Nuts to you.” Eloise looked up at the ceiling again. “Once,” she said, “I fell down. I used to wait for him at the bus stop, right outside the PX, and he showed up late once, just as the bus was pulling out. We started to run for it, and I fell and twisted my ankle. He said, ‘Poor Uncle Wiggily.’ He meant my ankle. Poor old Uncle Wiggily, he called it … God, he was nice.”
“Doesn’t Lew have a sense of humor?” Mary Jane said.
“Doesn’t Lew have a sense of humor?”
“Oh, God! Who knows? Yes. I guess so. He laughs at cartoons and stuff.” Eloise raised her head, lifted her drink from her chest, and drank from it.
“Well,” Mary Jane said. “That isn’t everything. I mean that isn’t everything.”
“Oh … you know. Laughing and stuff.”
“Who says it isn’t?” Eloise said. “Listen, if you’re not gonna be a nun or something, you might as well laugh.”
Mary Jane giggled. “You’re terrible,” she said.
“Ah, God, he was nice,” Eloise said. “He was either funny or sweet. Not that damn little-boy sweet, either. It was a special kind of sweet. You know what he did once?”
“Uh-uh,” Mary Jane said.
“We were on the train going from Trenton to New York – it was just right after he was drafted. It was cold in the car and I had my coat sort of over us. I remember I had Joyce Morrow’s cardigan on underneath – you remember that darling blue cardigan she had?”
Mary Jane nodded, but Eloise didn’t look over to get the nod.
“Well, he sort of had his hand on my stomach. You know. Anyway, all of a sudden he said my stomach was so beautiful he wished some officer would come up and order him to stick his other hand through the window. He said he wanted to do what was fair. Then he took his hand away and told the conductor to throw his shoulders back. He told him if there was one thing he couldn’t stand it was a man who didn’t look proud of his uniform. The conductor just told him to go back to sleep.” Eloise reflected a moment, then said, “It wasn’t always what he said, but how he said it. You know.”
“Have you ever told Lew about him – I mean, at all?”
“Oh,” Eloise said. “I started to, once. But the first thing he asked me was what his rank was.”
“What was his rank?”
“Ha!” said Eloise.
“No, I just meant -”
Eloise laughed suddenly, from her diaphragm. “You know what he said once. He said he felt he was advancing in the Army, but in a different direction from everybody else. He said that when he’d get his first promotion, instead of getting stripes he’d have his sleeves taken away from him. He said when he’d get to be a general, he’d be stark naked. All he’d be wearing would be a little infantry button in his navel.” Eloise looked over at Mary Jane, who wasn’t laughing. “Don’t you think that’s funny?”
“Yes. Only, why don’t you tell Lew about him sometimes, though?”
“Why? Because he’s too damn unintelligent, that’s why,” Eloise said. “Besides. Listen to me, career girl. If you ever get married again, don’t tell your husband anything. Do you hear me?”
“Why?” said Mary Jane.
“Because I say so, that’s why,” said Eloise. “They wanna think you spent your whole life vomiting every time a boy came near you. I’m not kidding, either. Oh, you can tell them stuff. But never honestly. I mean never honestly. If you tell ’em you once knew a handsome boy, you gotta say in the same breath he was too handsome. And if you tell ’em you knew a witty boy, you gotta tell ’em he was kind of a smart aleck, though, or a wise guy. If you don’t, they hit you over the head with the poor boy every time they get a chance.” Eloise paused to drink from her glass and to think. “Oh,” she said, “they’ll listen very maturely and all that. They’ll even look intelligent as hell. But don’t let it fool you. Believe me. You’ll go through hell if you ever give ’em any credit for intelligence. Take my word.”
Mary Jane, looking depressed, raised her chin from the armrest of the couch. For a change, she supported her chin on the forearm. She thought over Eloise’s advice. “You can’t call Lew not intelligent,” she said aloud.
“I mean isn’t he intelligent?” Mary Jane said innocently.
“Oh,” said Eloise, “what’s the use of talking? Let’s drop it. I’ll just depress you. Shut me up.”
“Well, wudga marry him for, then?” Mary Jane said.
“Oh, God! I don’t know. He told me he loved Jane Austen. He told me her books meant a great deal to him. That’s exactly what he said. I found out after we were married that he hadn’t even read one of her books. You know who his favorite author is?”
Mary Jane shook her head.
“L. Manning Vines. Ever hear of him?”
“Neither did I. Neither did anybody else. He wrote a book about four men that starved to death in Alaska. Lew doesn’t remember the name of it, but it’s the most beautifully written book he’s ever read. Christ! He isn’t even honest enough to come right out and say he liked it because it was about four guys that starved to death in an igloo or something. He has to say it was beautifully written.”
“You’re too critical,” Mary Jane said. “I mean you’re too critical. Maybe it was a good–”
“Take my word for it, it couldn’t’ve been,” Eloise said. She thought for a moment, then added, “At least you have a job. I mean at least you –”
“But listen, though,” said Mary Jane. “Do you think you’ll ever tell him Walt was killed, even? I mean he wouldn’t be jealous, would he, if he knew Walt was – you know. Killed and everything.”
“Oh, lover! You poor, innocent little career girl,” said Eloise. “He’d be worse. He’d be a ghoul. Listen. All he knows is that I went around with somebody named Walt – some wisecracking G.I. The last thing I’d do would be to tell him he was killed. But the last thing. And if I did – which I wouldn’t – but if I did, I’d tell him he was killed in action.”